If post-Enlightenment modernity has a single credal axiom, it is that truth is limited to only what can be sensed with the senses, measured with our instruments, and generally expressed in mathematical language. Facts, in a word. All other claimants to “truth,” in this view, amount to subjective opinion at best and dark superstition at worst.
This way of knowing the world emerged roughly 400 years ago from within the natural sciences and soon came to color many people’s approach to life as a whole. The great premodern traditions at first balked, then spent the centuries that followed reacting against and/or accommodating the scientific outlook. All along, science yielded one dazzling insight after another into the inner workings of nature.
It isn’t surprising that this turn of events would plunge tradition into a half-millennial funk. But tradition’s unhappiness is a secondary concern; what matters is our fulfillment. Four hundred years after the rise of the scientific outlook, we must consider whether it has satisfied the hunger for truth that gave rise to it in the first place.
The answer is emphatically no.
We rarely pause to notice the scientific outlook’s poverty. Partly, this is because it has now calcified into an ideology—scientism. And partly, it’s because the (very real) achievements of modern science continually beguile reason into surrendering its mandate to men and women in lab coats. Only occasionally, under the press of extraordinary calamities, do we attain the lucidity needed to pose fundamental questions anew.
The recent coronavirus pandemic is one such event. An event of this kind forcefully and frontally challenges the reigning scientific outlook. It does this in three ways. First, by revealing science’s internal limitations when it comes to mastering nature, let alone yielding ultimate truth. Second, by underscoring the primacy of life itself over the scientific enterprise. Third, by reminding us that there persists a vast range of human problems that no scientific discovery or technique can solve.
The deaths and disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus are tragic. But we would be betraying reason itself if we fail to reexamine our most cherished civilizational assumptions through the rare window of lucidity lately opened for us.
Bowing to the Work of Our Hands
A Jewish legend. One day, a skeptical man sets out to test the first-century sage Rabban Gamaliel II. Where, he asks Gamaliel, does your God reside?
“I do not know,” Gamaliel replies.
“Is this your wisdom,” the man scoffs, “the wisdom of the people who pray to God every day yet do not know where his place is?” Wouldn’t it make more sense, he goes on, “to bow down to the work of our own hands, since we can always see it?”
“You see the work of your own hands,” an irate Gamaliel retorts, “but it cannot see you.” Why would it be different between God and us? “As is said, ‘man shall not see me, not even a celestial creature.’”
The man’s scoffing should sound familiar to us, for it prefigures the modern outlook that tempts us to fix our gaze securely on the idols crafted by our own ingenuity. The temptation to treat what we have measured or created as ultimate truth is very old, indeed. Calling Israel to repentance, the prophet Hosea urges: “Take with you words and return to the Lord; say to him, … ‘We will say no more, “Our god,” to the work of our hands.’”
The advent of modernity saw Western societies succumb to this ancient temptation on a mass scale, beginning with a scientific-philosophical elite. What the biblical tradition scorned as a seductive falsehood became a proud motto and calling card. In his Introduction to Christianity, the future Pope Benedict XVI pinpointed the tectonic shift in the Renaissance philosopher Giambattista Vico’s famous formula verum quia factum—“truth is what is made.”
Vico specifically had in mind historical knowledge. Truth for him was humanity’s achievements in time and space—the only things we could truly know, because we had made them ourselves. But scientists and scientific ideologues would soon adopt his formula. To their mind, truth is simply the knowledge we can gather about phenomena in the world and their efficient material causes, plus the technological advances spurred by the growth of this knowledge. That’s it.
“Science explains everything” is how George Weigel has summed up the more contemporary, and more American, version of Vico’s formula. It is the prayer on the lips of the scientific outlook’s proponents today. What they really mean, of course, is that “science will explain everything.” They believe that one day, scientific knowledge will surmount all its present limitations and unlock the deepest mysteries of reality—all without recourse to claims about ultimate meaning and truth that are the stock-in-trade of philosophy and traditional religion.
The theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss preached a version of this faith in a 2013 New York Times column celebrating the publication of a comprehensive map of the Big Bang’s afterglow, known as the cosmic microwave background radiation. Such achievements, Krauss enthused, have brought scientists to the brink of “exploring realms of nature that previously may have been thought to be in the domain of philosophy or theology.”
The so-called New Atheists, as well as crude popularizers like Neil deGrasse Tyson, all sing variations on this article of the scientific credo: Science will explain everything. Science will master everything. Can it?
There is nothing quite like a sudden and unforeseen pandemic to puncture the confidence of confident men. Scientists have calculated the age of the universe down to the smallest unit of time, penetrated into the most minuscule depths of physical reality, built self-driving cars, and on and on—yet a novel and mysterious virus can jump from a certain species of bat into Homo sapiens and wreak havoc on the modern world. Yes, science will very likely conquer the novel coronavirus (please God!). But events of this kind should shatter the illusion of scientific-technical progress toward some terminus of ultimate truth expressible in scientific or mathematical language. Nature, it seems, keeps throwing up new mysteries, keeps humbling us.
Stranded on the Isle of Knowledge
Not all scientists agree that science should seek to displace theology and philosophy—or even that it can ever hope to do so.
Today, the most eloquent proponent of such scientific humility is Marcelo Gleiser, a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth. As a scientist, Gleiser probes the intersection of particle physics and cosmology in the early universe. As a public intellectual, he commands a wide audience, especially in his native Brazil, by elucidating the meaning—and limits—of science as a grand narrative of reality.
His core argument can be stated succinctly and starkly: Natural science, he thinks, will never unlock ultimate truth. Period.
Gleiser compares the growth of our factual know-ledge to an island, what he calls the Island of Knowledge. This island, he has written, is surrounded by the “unexplored ocean of the unknown, hiding countless tantalizing mysteries.” As scientists learn about the world, the Island of Knowledge expands, though at times the growth may “retrocede, as ideas once accepted are jettisoned in light of new discoveries.”
Scientists might imagine that the island’s growth will eventually bring them “to some sort of final destination, which some call a Theory of Everything and others, the ultimate nature of reality.” Yet “as the Island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance—the boundary between the known and unknown.” The growth of factual knowledge leads not to a final end, “but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.” This dual, simultaneous growth—of our knowledge and our ignorance—will go on for as long as the scientific enterprise does.
Gleiser identifies two barriers standing between scientific inquiry and ultimate truth, barriers he thinks are insuperable and will remain so—forever. “The limited precision of our exploratory tools” erects the first barrier. The instruments we use to “see” viruses, subatomic particles, distant galaxies, black holes, etc., all perceive or measure objects or phenomena “out there” in the world within certain limits of precision.
Galileo’s telescope allowed him to observe Jupiter within a certain limit of precision. Edwin Hubble’s telescope atop Mount Wilson in California could peer farther and with much greater precision than Galileo’s could. And the Event Horizon Telescope, which last year gave us the first direct glimpse of a black hole, blows its predecessors out of the water. Gleiser’s paradoxical argument is that the telescopes of the future will no doubt outstrip today’s cutting-edge instruments, thereby revealing new wonders—and new limits.
“Technology limits how deeply experiments can probe into physical reality,” he argues.
“That is to say, machines determine what we can measure and thus what scientists can learn about the universe and about ourselves.” So it is folly to speak of some scientific end point that will reveal, once and for all, the innermost strata of reality. Fact is, “at any point in time, new technological tools may reveal the new and unexpected and thus force a revision of our current knowledge.” The history of science, after all, is the story of men and women overcoming old technological limitations—only to meet new ones.
Nature foists a second set of limits on scientific inquiry. “Nature itself—at least as we humans perceive it—operates within certain limits,” Gleiser says. To cite one of many examples: Our universe’s finite age, coupled with the finite speed of light, places an absolute, and permanent, obstacle on the road to any “ultimate” scientific account of the cosmos.
There are cosmic limits beyond which we simply can’t “see,” because the distances involved are too vast, and the fastest speed in nature, that of light, all too finite. Even objects we do see, the stars and galaxies that sparkle in our night sky, are only “there” in a provisional way. Particles of light from the “nearby” Andromeda galaxy that telescopes detect today left their point of origin 2 million years ago; we can only infer that Andromeda is still there.
The limits on our knowledge of the cosmos become still more daunting when we take into account the expansion of the universe. Gleiser explains: “The farthest point from which light could have reached us in 13.8 billion years, the age of the universe. Even if space extends beyond it, we cannot receive signals from behind this wall.” And as the expansion of the universe accelerates, our cosmic bubble shrinks, relatively speaking, as more and more of the universe recedes beyond our measuring grasp.
Our universe might be closed. It might stretch out infinitely. Or it might be one of a multitude of universes floating in some incomprehensibly gigantic “multiverse.” We can’t be sure, and, Gleiser insists, we can never be sure. Thus, to put the two types of limits together: “The universe we measure only tells a finite story, based on how much information can get to us (the cosmic horizon placing a limitation here) and how much of this information we manage to gather (our technological prowess placing a limitation here).”
Yet the history of science is also the story of men and women claiming that in their own age, science had arrived at its final destination. In a speech at the University of Chicago, the American experimental physicist Albert Michelson declared that “it seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles” of physics “have been firmly established and that further advances are to be sought chiefly in the rigorous application of these principles.” That was in 1894, before Albert Einstein published his special and general theories of relativity and before the advent of quantum mechanics.
The overconfidence of some of today’s most prominent scientists and science popularizers would surely have left even Michelson blushing. The current crop of scientists-cum–public intellectuals—think Krauss, Tyson, and the like—go much further than Michelson did, by suggesting that science can not only reveal ultimate truth but also definitively rule out, or somehow render superfluous, nonscientific ways of knowing.
We are told that particle physics can replace theology and metaphysics, that genetics and evolutionary biology can tell us all we need to know about what makes us human. Subject nature to formidable enough scientific inquiry, and she will relinquish her last mysteries and finally confess that she bears no meaning, no purposiveness. “Randomness is all I have,” she will sigh. Then science will hammer the final nail into the coffin of revealed religion and philosophy. Or so ideologues of the scientific outlook dream.
These boasts strike Gleiser as unsound from a scientific point of view. Tyson, Krauss, and the like, he argues, ask of science more than it could ever hope to deliver and thus perpetuate a spirit of scientific “arrogance.” The notion that science will one day reach some absolute point of factual knowledge, tantamount to ultimate truth, is an assault not just on legitimate disciplines like theology and philosophy, but on the open-ended nature of scientific inquiry itself.
As Gleiser told me in an interview at his Dartmouth office in the summer of 2019, far from promoting “scientific defeatism,” he is out to “defend the integrity of science.” And lest anyone suspect him of harboring some hidden religious agenda, he was quick to emphasize that when it comes to the God question, he is firmly “agnostic, open-minded but agnostic.”
The Primacy of Life
So much for science’s internal and natural limits. But the scientific outlook suffers from another blind spot, also hinted at in the coronavirus crisis, and that is its inability to grasp the subjective dimensions of life—on which science itself is wholly dependent. This was the problem identified by the French thinker Michel Henry (1922–2002) in his hugely controversial and sadly forgotten book Barbarism.
When it was first published in 1987, the book stirred the intellectual waters in France, not least because Henry’s fulminations went beyond scientism or scientific outlook to strike at “Galilean science” itself. The book also suffered from the bombast and weird jargon that mar so much modern Continental philosophy. Even so, his core diagnosis of what ails the scientific outlook is crystal clear and remains pertinent.
The scientific outlook, Henry argues, subtracts our subjective experience of life from our understanding of life. Since much of life doesn’t lend itself to objective apprehension and expression, the scientific outlook simply removes what it can’t apprehend from the realm of what is knowable or even worth knowing. But this brute privileging of one form of knowing above all others ultimately ends up erasing the truly human subject as such. Warned Henry:
To separate the reality of objects from their sensible qualities is also to terminate our senses, all of our impressions, emotions, desires, passions, and thoughts; in short, all of our subjectivity that makes the substance of life…. The kiss exchanged by lovers is only a collision of microphysical particles.
Henry gives science its due. Science produces “rigorous, objective, undeniable, and true knowledge,” he writes. “It is distinguished from all the approximate and dubitable forms of knowledge, belief, or superstition that preceded it by the power of its evidence, proofs, and experiments, as well as the extraordinary results to which it has led and which have revolutionized the face of the earth.” Nevertheless, the scientific outlook’s attacks on other domains of knowing render these others insensible and thus block human communion where it should be possible.
Thus the “barbarism” of his title. If barbarism, as the European conservative tradition has long defined it, is simply the refusal to communicate where communion is possible, then modern scientism is a barbarous enterprise. It tears down all traditional knowledge, including the subjective knowledge embedded in human life itself; it rejects communion with the past, except, that is, on scientific-technical terms.
This, even though life itself long predates science as we know it. Life should, in a rightly ordered cultural scheme, enjoy primacy over what is merely one branch of knowledge, one way of knowing. By life, Henry doesn’t mean “biological life,” which is another scientific category, but something closer to being-humanness. Life, in this sense, entails religion, spirituality, art, culture, folkways, and, more fundamentally, the knowledge embedded in our daily experience.
To be sure, we owe science a measure of deference, owing to its achievements. But we must temper that deference, remembering that
beginnings are always what is most difficult. How was prescientific humanity, lacking all the tools that modern technology would later provide, able to survive and develop? Moreover, how was it ever able to produce extraordinary results in many domains, for example those of art and religion, that people of our time would be unable to achieve, unless it made use of this fundamental knowledge of life?
To illustrate this point, Henry gave the example of a medical student reading a book about genetics. The flesh-and-blood act of gathering knowledge—turning the pages, using the eyes, etc.—is “the knowledge of life.” It is prior to, and makes possible, the objective scientific substance contained in the book. “If one were to ask which of these . . . types of knowledge is fundamental”—scientific knowledge or the primordial knowledge of life—“it would be necessary to reject the prejudices of our time all at once,” above all the belief that “scientific knowledge is not only the most important but in reality the only true knowledge.”
The coronavirus has offered a grimmer illustration of Henry’s point in the fact of physicians and other health scientists succumbing to the disease as they try to combat it. To be clear, those men and women deserve our unreserved admiration. But their human vulnerability to the ravages of the coronavirus is a reminder that finally science is entangled with flesh and bone, soul and consciousness, things that can’t be reduced to the objective knowledge that is the fruit of science.
The New Barbarians
Already by the 19th century, literary spirits were raising the alarm about the dangers of applying the scientific outlook to the whole of life. This, even as the era’s leading scientific thinkers and many philosophers plowed ahead in that direction. Think, for example, of Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862). It is one of those little novels in which nothing very much “happens” but that encapsulate the whole spirit of an age—in this case, an ugly scientistic spirit.
Arkady Kirsanov, a scion of Russia’s rural nobility, returns home after finishing his university studies in Moscow. His doting father hopes Arkday will now take charge of the declining country estate. But Arkady has other ideas, which he has imbibed under the influence of his best friend-cum-mentor, Bazarov, a brooding, ferociously smart medical student. Bazarov has agreed to join Arkady’s family for the summer. Soon he becomes a fixture amid the Kirsanovs’ country idyll, though he never quite fits in; most of the time, he can be found searching for vermin, which he dissects for some unspecified “study.”
When he does socialize, Bazarov horrifies his friend’s relatives with his total rejection of all traditional ideals and authority. He calls himself a “nihilist,” a posture then in vogue among the young intelligentsia. Bazarov represents a social type that would have been familiar to Russian readers of Turgenev’s time. Yet a century and a half later, we, too, can recognize him among our contemporaries, even if today’s Bazarovs rarely proclaim their nihilism so openly.
In Bazarov’s disquisitions, for example, we hear echoes of our scientistic ideologues, who reduce the mystery of human love to mere hormones and evolutionary drives. “What are these mysterious relations between man and woman?” Bazarov rages at Arkady. “We physiologists know all about such relations. Try studying the anatomy of the eye: From where will you get your enigmatic expression… ? All that is romanticism, nonsense, rot, art. We’d much better go and look at the beetle.”
As for the origins of ideals, Bazarov is almost the perfect prototype of today’s evolutionary and neurobiological determinists. “There are no such things as principles,” he says at one point.
But there are sensations. Everything depends on them….I, for instance, take the line of negation—thanks to the sensation it affords me. I enjoy negation, my brain’s constructed that way—and basta! Why do I like chemistry? Why do I like apples? All thanks to sensation. It’s all the same thing.
Even honesty, he suggests, is a mere sensation.
In the final chapters, the clash between Bazarov and Arkady’s genteel uncle, Pavel Kirsanov, intensifies. Pavel exemplifies the nobility: harsh, proud, unaccustomed to justifying its privileges but also ultimately delicate and soulful. Pavel challenges Bazarov to a duel over a mutual love interest, and the youth ends up wounding the old aristocrat. The bullet doesn’t kill Pavel right away, but it somehow punctuates the end of his whole romantic world, soon to be overrun by an army of fanatically “objective” Bazarovs.
Bazarov’s own life and death don’t lack for a certain tragic nobility. He can win the intimacy of women, but he can’t communicate love. He pities and treats Pavel after wounding him, but he can’t converse in the often-unspoken language of honor in which the aging aristocrat is fluent. Bazarov dies of bacterial disease while curing penniless serfs amid an epidemic, but finally he can’t even recognize the noble or romantic dimension of his own martyrdom.
Bazarov is a perfect barbarian in Michel Henry’s scheme, as are the young doctor’s contemporary heirs. They are highly educated, technically proficient barbarians, to be sure, but barbarians all the same. People who speak only one language—that is, the scientific-technical-objective—can’t commune with nature, other human beings, or even with themselves in the other languages that murmur in the mind and heart. They reduce the truth of love to biochemical processes, the conscience to an “adaptation.”
Despite its gleaming white façade, theirs is a monstrous world, for, as Henry wrote, they believe that “everything that can be done by science ought to be done by it and for it, since there is nothing but science and the reality that it knows, namely, objective reality.”
Reason’s Treachery Against Itself
We are fighting a horrific respiratory virus that singles out for harm the elderly and the infirm. We must defeat it, and we will defeat it—through human solidarity and, yes, with scientific ingenuity. But afterward, the question would still remain: Why? Why are we prepared to shut down our entire economy to save the most vulnerable? People of the heart have an answer to that question, but does science? Is there a scientific explanation for our will to preserve life?
The scientific worldview can’t, and won’t, bother with questions having to do with meaning and purpose. And it insists that such questions don’t belong to an inquiry into the truth in the first place, since the potential answers couldn’t possibly take scientific form. And this is its third and perhaps biggest blind spot.
Meaning and purpose implicate nothing less than the value of being itself. Given the monopoly it claims on truth, the modern scientific outlook should be able to resolve my question about why we fight the coronavirus at the cost of severely damaging our economy. Can it? More fundamentally, can scientific inquiry tell us why being is preferable to nonbeing? Why should my children think that life is worth living and passing on? Why should you and yours?
The stock scientific answer is that we carry on because our sensory experiences are enjoyable or, more generally, because nature has “programmed” us to carry on. Put another way, the animal instinct to prefer being to nonbeing, or the instinct to preserve members of our own species, is justification enough to do so.
The problem is that animal instinct alone can’t suffice to ratify the existence of a rational being. As the French medievalist Rémi Brague has argued, appealing to instinct in this way “would entrust to unreason the existence of the only being who can be the carrier of reason.” If reason “freely surrendered to unreason” when it came to justifying why a rational creature should carry on living, reason would commit “high treason” against itself.
At any rate, “because instinct says so” is a deeply unsatisfying answer for a creature who can also defy instinct, indeed, does so as a matter of routine. No wonder many people today reject the instinctive answer and proclaim that human life isn’t worth perpetuating, be they climate-change activists, “anti-natalists” like the South African philosopher David Benatar, or affluent classes across the West, growing ranks of whom are delaying having children, if they reproduce at all.
We long for a meaning science can’t supply. We wonder why we should carry on living and transmit life. We marvel at our discoveries, yes, but we also wonder why reality is intelligible to us in the first place: Why, for example, do we find such beauty in the swirling shapes of galaxies, even as the sizes of these objects boggle our minds? We wonder, too, what it means to live well, what duties we owe one another and the other creatures that share the earth with us. And so on.
Four centuries after it took off, the scientific outlook still can’t supply scientific answers to these fundamental questions. To be sure, factual knowledge—the kind produced by repeatable experiments and expressed in mathematical language—can be true. Facts can describe what is, to go by Saint Augustine’s definition of truth. But the category of truth, it seems, encompasses more than such knowledge, since the facts we gather raise problems that facts alone can’t solve.
What should we do with this longing for meaning and for a different knowledge—and with our intuition that we can find them, provided we look in the right places?
For starters, we might finally recognize the monumental failure of verum quia factum. When early-modern Europe’s philosophical revolutionaries proposed to strictly equate truth with what could be made or measured—with our “handiwork,” in the Talmudic telling—they imagined they were liberating the quest for truth. Freed from the dead hand of dogma and tradition, they thought, humanity could pursue the truth wherever it might lead.
In the scientific realm, they succeeded marvelously: Who today can deny the achievements of the scientific method? But the moderns didn’t limit verum quia factum to the laboratory, where it is perfectly suitable. Rather, they insisted that verum quia factum be applied across all of life’s realms: If experimentation yielded such astonishing results in the laboratory, they thought, why not also subject the rest of life to the spirit of the laboratory?
In 1848, the French scholar Ernest Renan mused: “What would happen if we could add to scientific experimentation the practical experimentation of life?” A decade later, the English utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill floated his “experiments in living.” And not long after, the German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche called on philosophers to imagine “a form of life we haven’t yet reached.” (Rémi Brague has marvelously clipped these and other thinkers’ feverish calls for experimental living in his recent book Curing Mad Truths.)
Not just how men and women studied the natural world, but quite literally everything was now unsettled and up for experimentation. The aim was liberation; the result, something else. What began as a philosophical proposal soon hardened into the ideology of scientism. Scientism, verum quia factum as an ideological project, removed broad swaths of reality from legitimate inquiry and left men and women grasping for answers that the premoderns took for granted.
Scientific modernity has brought us many good things. But as Brague points out, “the modern worldview can’t furnish us with a rational explanation of why it is good that there should be human beings to enjoy those good things.” If we should treat life itself as an experiment, much as science treats the objects of scientific inquiry—well, experiments can fail. Tampering with nature can yield hideous results. Seeking meaning in cosmology can leave us dejected. A virus can suddenly undo all our best-laid plans and lifestyle experiments.
Then what are we left with?
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